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For Non-smokers, Israel is Not the Promised Land

Sabra, an asthmatic from Tel Aviv, was at a nightclub enjoying live music when the man seated next to her lit up a cigarette.

Unable to breathe and unable to speak over the loud music, Sabra gestured to the man to let him know that the smoke was bothering her. The man responded by turning toward Sabra and blowing smoke directly in her face.

That’s when Sabra punched him.

Sabra, who asked that her last name not be used, is one of countless Israelis convinced that Israel is a staunchly pro-smoking society and that asking law-enforcement authorities to enforce anti-smoking laws is an exercise in futility.

In shopping malls, banks and airports, many complain, even law-enforcement officials flaunt clearly posted no- smoking rules.

Jerusalemite Charlotte Herman recalls talking to a guard at the Interior Ministry who was smoking directly beneath a no-smoking sign.

“When I showed him the sign, he claimed it referred to the 1-inch space beneath it,” Herman says. “He said that where he was standing, 2 inches away, smoking was allowed.”

The battle between smokers and non-smokers has become so heated in Israel that fisticuffs sometimes occur.

Dov Rabinowitz, director of the national committee against public smoking, Ma’avak B’Tabak — “Struggle Against Tobacco” — recalls an incident where a doctor was attacked after asking a hospital visitor not to smoke.

According to Israel’s Health Ministry, almost 30 percent of Israelis are smokers; in development towns, which typically are poorer, the number is closer to 50 percent. Between 8,000 and 11,000 Israelis die each year from causes directly related to smoking, and about 1,000 to 1,500 are killed by second-hand smoke.

Officially, Israeli law mandates that all places of employment — including stores, movie theaters and cafes — must post signs informing customers that smoking is not allowed. Business owners may create designated smoking areas that take up no more than one-quarter of the business area. Businesses and customers flaunting the rules may be fined.

Smokers insist that anti-smoking laws are enforced every day all around them.

“This law has turned smokers into a persecuted minority,” cries Angela Ben Tsvi, waving her cigarette as she speaks. “It violates my personal rights. It violates my right to free expression. I feel like a criminal when I smoke in a cafe. I always have to look around me to see if I can light up. It’s very unpleasant.”

Ruth Ben David agrees.

“I enjoy holding a cigarette in my hand,” she says, smoking outdoors at Tel Aviv’s Espresso Bar. “I enjoy the nicotine and I enjoy the inhalation. If I pay $20 for lunch, I want to enjoy it. I want to be able to smoke my cigarette and finish it. I shouldn’t be denied that right.”

Ben David complains that she is forced outside during hot summers and cold winters if she wants to light up.

Rinat Laufmann, another smoker at Espresso Bar, says businesses should choose whether to allow smoking or whether to be entirely smoke-free, allowing smokers to choose which establishments to patronize.

Mati Gudiner, one of many smokers enjoying a cigarette at a cafe at Dizengoff Center, a popular Tel Aviv mall, asked the waitress if smoking was permitted before she lit up at a table in the mall’s walkway.

“I guess they just don’t really care” about irritating nonsmokers, Gudiner says, gesturing around her. “Case in point: ashtrays on all the tables.”

Though she is a smoker, Gudiner says the government needs to insist on enforcing the anti-smoking law.

“I think it’s just an issue of getting used to it, as with every new thing,” she says. “It’s difficult to introduce this law after people were allowed to smoke for so long. It was the same in New York and in Sydney. It was hard; people were used to smoking. But as soon as they made it a law, there was nothing to do about it.”

In Israel, however, where authorities are lax about enforcing the law, no-smoking rules have taken longer to catch on. The lack of social pressure in Israel against smoking has helped keep alive a culture of tolerance toward smokers.

Cafe, restaurant and bar owners say it’s impossible to get Israelis to stop smoking, regardless of the law.

Anti-smoking crusader Rabinowitz disagrees: Citing the effective campaign that banned smoking on buses, he says it’s a matter of resources.

“Many bus drivers were under the impression that they would be fined if they allowed smoking on buses. Whether or not that was the case, that was what they believed. Within two months, there was no more smoking on buses,” he says.

Urban legend has it that when one bus driver encountered a rider who refused to put out a cigarette, the driver drove the bus straight to the nearest police station.

The problem is that business owners, by contrast, have no incentive to risk customers’ ire and demand that they refrain from smoking, since the government does little to enforce smoking penalties in places of business, Rabinowitz says.

In Israel’s capital city, city inspectors are responsible for issuing tickets for no-smoking violations, Rabinowitz says he was informed by a spokesman for the Jerusalem municipality, Ayal Chaimovsky.

Chaimovsky told Rabinowitz that, due to budget cuts, inspectors don’t go out on patrols but act only when complaints are registered.

After meeting with Chaimovsky, Rabinowitz decided to test the system. He went to a nearby shopping mall, called the municipality to report that numerous people were smoking next to no-smoking signs and was met with befuddlement.

“The person who answered didn’t even know what law I was talking about,” Rabinowitz says. “She said, ‘We don’t respond to call-in complaints, only written complaints.’ I said, ‘I just came from a meeting with your boss, who said you only respond to call-in complaints.’ “

Gidi Shmerling, a spokesman for the municipality, said, “The Jerusalem municipality does enforce the no-smoking laws. For example, smoking is prohibited in the municipality building, there are specially designated smoking areas and tickets are issued to smokers who are not in permitted areas, or are in public areas where it is prohibited.”

Rabinowitz says a male inspector arrived at the mall about 20 minutes after his phone call, flirted with a group of female smokers and then asked them to put out their cigarettes. The inspector didn’t dispense any tickets.

Rabinowitz repeated the test several times at other locations, and when he did not invoke his professional capacity in phone calls, no inspectors showed up.

For the past few months, Ma’avak B’Tabak has tried a new tactic to encourage Jerusalem to enforce the smoking laws.

“We have a private donor ready to fund these inspectors that the municipality supposedly has no budget for,” Rabinowitz says. “We also have volunteers ready to send in reports, to be the eyes and ears.”

Government officials tell him that there are legal complications involved in taking a private donation, he says.

Shmerling said there are legal restrictions involved with accepting donations to enforce specific laws.

However, he said, “If a donation comes in at a specific amount, and the goals the donor seeks are set down, the municipality’s legal counsel is prepared to examine the opportunities to use this donation proactively regarding the subject of enforcing the smoking laws in the city.”

Until the issue is resolved, it seems the only clear thing is that the City of Gold will remain the city of smoke.

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